release date: September 20, 2011

Duke Robillard's latest, rousing and rocking offering is a welcome return to and affirmation of Duke's grittier blues roots and early influences. It's not a scholarly, systematic survey of blues history or even a balance of his main motifs (it's light on his Texas/T-Bone Walker, jazz or more contemporary components which are showcased terrifically on other Stony Plain releases), but rather a stroll through generally gutbucket common and comfortable ground and a chance to just have fun and let it rip with appealing simplicity. At the same time, over the years Duke has become such a master of the subtleties and the basics of his craft as a virtuoso, historian, producer and studio proprietor that he captures the essentials of the originals and burnishes his updates to a level of savvy that is found only in art of the highest caliber. Listeners seeking a showcase for Duke's songwriting, refined side or esoterica have plenty of other places to turn. Listeners wanting to hear Duke's vocals at their absolute best, his blues guitar work at the level that has garnered him piles of awards and accolades as an All Timer, a perfectly idiomatic, nuanced and sympathetic musical framework, similarly modern but tradition-based production and a repertoire and approach that go back to the days when Duke began storming the gates of blues immortality with Roomful Of Blues will love LOWDOWN AND TORE UP.

Duke sums it up: "The reason for this CD is basically, I just wanted to go in the studio and record live and capture the real feeling of the lowdown blues in an off the cuff sort of way the way singles used to be made in the blues world for small labels. Just a whatever happens vibe with lots of ensemble playing. I made a list of tunes I loved from the old days and we just went through it in two days. This is what I think of as a real blues record, not a lot of fuss, no worry about perfection and mostly "let's have a good time!'"

The program draws two songs each from Guitar Slim, Tampa Red, Sugarboy Crawford, Pee Wee Crayton and Elmore James, and one each from Eddie Taylor, John Lee Hooker (also with an Eddie Taylor stamp), Jimmy McCracklin and Bobby "Blues" Merrill. According to Duke, "I picked these tunes based on two points. First, they were all songs that were part of my experience in learning or playing the blues. Like Pee Wee Crayton's "Blues After Hours" was a big thing to me. Seeing a photo of him in the studio playing a Vega non-cutaway archtop with a single pickup in the bridge position influenced me greatly. I started the horn version of Roomful of Blues with an acoustic non-cutaway guitar with a detachable DeArmond "floating" pickup and a small tube amp. I wanted to work with the same limitations as the guys that were influencing me like Gene Phillips, Pee Wee, Tiny Grimes, etc.... Second, I usually picked blues covers by how good they were to me, not because they were popular blues tunes. I have always tried to find, in many cases, songs that most people haven't heard like Jimmy McCracklin's "It's Alright" or Sugarboy Crawford's "What's Wrong" or "Overboard." The raw playing and singing on the original tracks were truly beautiful inspired abandon and real lowdown blues."

To provide the exquisite ensemble work, Duke "basically used my current band who are capable of playing anything! Then I added in Sax Gordon because he is the only younger sax player who knows and loves the Chicago style of J.T. Brown and Eddie Shaw and can actually play that style with all the crudeness of J.T. himself. A very rare cat indeed! Matt McCabe was chosen because Bruce Bears was previously committed to a session with someone else the day we started, and seeing I was recording a few Tampa Red/Big Maceo numbers I knew Matt would be perfect. Also I knew he knew "Blues After Hours" exactly as it was on the original recording." Duke's rock-solid, supple and swinging rhythm team of bassist Brad Hallen and drummer Mark Teixeira (who also takes the vocal on "Overboard") round things out wonderfully.

Duke is well known as a gearhead; that too was back to the basics here. "On this album I used an acoustic 1938 Epiphone Broadway with that same attachable pickup I used in early Roomful. I played that on "Blues After Hours," "Mercy Mercy Mama," "Play With Your Poodle," "Overboard," "Tool Bag Boogie," "What's Wrong," "It's Alright" and maybe a few more. I used an early "50s little Vega amp with it for the authentic sound. I used my Gibson ES 355 for the Eddie Taylor and John Lee Hooker tune ["Want Ad Blues"] and "Quicksand." I played a replica I built of Pee Wee Crayton's original Stratocaster that Leo Fender had given him for "Do Unto Others" and "Later For You Baby." I guess you could say I wanted to play in the original style but update the sound quality and still retain the live recording values of the old days."

The results are as potent as the ingredients promise. Duke's vocals offer flair, joy and passion, and the guitar is authoritative and informed but applied judiciously and very much in context. The solo space is frequently shared or on some songs ceded entirely to Gordon's equally outstanding and well-grounded contributions, or to the two stalwart pianists. Duke's Guitar Slim covers have always been highlights; the two here ("Quicksand" and "Later For You Baby") have all the abandon and force of their originator. Eddie Taylor's take on the traditional "Trainfare" puts a little Mississippi-to-Chicago mud on Duke's shoes and offers the first of Gordon's nods to J.T. Brown, longtime anchor of Elmore James' Broomdusters known with good reason by his peers as "The Nanny Goat Horn." The two Tampa Red covers ("Mercy Mercy Mama" and "Let Me Play With Your Poodle") are robust piano-driven highlights with a 1940s feel; as Tampa first put it and Duke reiterates on "Poodle," "ain't no harm in that." The Sugarboy Crawford tunes are quite a contrast. Teixeira's vocal, careening rock and roll piano and a concise, scorching Gordon solo power the frantic "Overboard" before Duke levels what's left of the playing field, while "What's Wrong," another longtime Duke live favorite and noteworthy tragicomedy, blends a prototypical "50s Chicago stop time beat and feel (in keeping with the Chess Records imprint of the original) with lyrics that could only have come from New Orleans. As for the Pee Wee Crayton tunes, Duke, McCabe and crew pull off a splendid and suitably ambient evocation of the original 1948 smash "Blues After Hours," while Duke does add some solo thoughts of his own. He reads the piledriving "Do Unto Others" more literally, but a song whose original was chosen by Bob Dylan (one of Duke's most illustrious former employers along with Tom Waits, the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Roomful) to open his anthology CD of favorites for Starbuck's and cited as an influence on the Beatles' "Revolution" is certainly worthy of polishing rather than deconstruction. The Hooker quirkiness of the bouncing and salacious "Want Ad Blues," "Tool Bag Boogie" with Duke replicating the T-Bone Walker influence on Elmore James' fretted guitar playing and tasty Gordon and McCabe solos, and Elmore's searing "The 12 Year Old Boy" totally nail the classic, raw Chicago ensemble sound. "It's Alright" features Duke's plaintive vocals over stops and a typical in-no-hurry Bob Geddins East Bay tempo, with the wailing Gordon as the primary instrumental foil. Merrill's take on the frequent "I Ain't Mad at you" theme provides Duke and band with a jumping, jazzy Kansas-City-meets-L.A. shuffle with a vocal chorus and singing to rouse the ghost of Wynonie Harris.

Being both immaculate and visceral may seem paradoxical, but it adds up to a laudable and unsurpassed command of the blues styles at hand and to equally commendable musical (and sonic) teamwork. Since Duke began to use these vehicles and others in the same spirit to establish himself forty-odd years ago, he has found his musical voice, center and a studio approach which tempers perfectionism with the understanding that great blues is also about feeling and getting, well, tore up, at least in terms of turning it loose. It may also seem paradoxical to say that an album with no original compositions is the essence of Duke Robillard, and it wouldn't be easy to narrow that down to any fourteen songs given all the ground he's covered as well. But this isn't the kind of outing that's meant to provoke a lot of pondering of happy paradoxes or even searching too deeply for meaning. It's a demonstration of the undeniable fact that Duke has carved out a legacy that puts him at least on a par with the greats who inspired and informed him, and that he still packs at least as much of a wallop as he did when first serving notice. Being LOWDOWN AND TORE UP never sounded better!

Dick Shurman (blues producer and historian)